Matt Olson trade grades: Braves get ‘A’ for Freddie Freeman replacement; A’s receive promising prospects

The Atlanta Braves, the defending World Series champions, made a blockbuster trade on Monday, acquiring first baseman Matt Olson from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for four prospects: outfielder Cristian Pache, catcher Shea Langeliers, and right-handers Ryan Cusick and Joey Estes. By obtaining Olson, the Braves will have set off a domino effect across the league. Now Freddie Freeman, who seemed like a sure bet to return to Atlanta entering the offseason, can find a new home through free agency.

Where he lands could very well dictate the fates of fellow free agent Anthony Rizzo and New York Yankees first baseman Luke Voit. Freeman’s signing may also provide clarity on Carlos Correa’s market.

For all the attention placed on the Braves’ side of things, the Olson trade marks the continuation of the Athletics’ teardown. Oakland feels right-hander Chris Bassitt to the New York Mets over the weekend, and is expected to ship out third baseman Matt Chapman and starters Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea over the coming days.

We are nothing if not the judgmental type, so we’ve decided to honor this trade’s significance by handing out grades that may or may not look stupid in a few years’ time. First, let’s rehash the specifics of the deal:

Braves receive

Athletics receive

  • OF Cristian Pache
  • C Shea Langeliers
  • RHP Ryan Cusick
  • RHP Joey Estes

Now, onto the gas baggery.

Brave grade: A

General managers have tough jobs. You have to juggle dozens of people, egos, and contracts, be it in your office, in your clubhouse, or on your farm. You have to deal with your owner and your manager, and you have to be able to make it so that both are satisfied despite their at-times clashing priorities. You have to make decisions that pit emotion against logic. You have to do all of that with the knowledge that you are always, always going to be scrutinized.

Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos was in an unusual predicament entering this offseason. His team just won an unlikely championship in a way — using role players acquired from other teams at the deadline — that earned him extra heapings of credit and the benefit of the narrative doubt. Anthopoulos gave his players a chance, people said. He believed in them. Sometimes that’s all it takes. It wasn’t rational, what he did at the deadline; not in the way that word tends to be used in this league these days. The odds were consistently against the Braves. Going for it on any level was not a resounding decision made on the grounds of pure, coldhearted probabilistic analysis.

What was so unusual about Anthopoulos’ position is that, by virtue of winning that title, he obtained the goodwill necessary to make an unpopular decision. Then he dared to use it.

In this case, that meant employing a first baseman other than Freddie Freeman, who had been a franchise mainstay since his 2010 debut. Freeman, a year removed from winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award, will undoubtedly go down in history as the best Brave of his generation. He made five All-Star Games and won three Silver Sluggers. We now know that he capped his career with Atlanta, at least the first portion of it, with a championship parade.

Anthopoulos made this call after resisting the temptation to give Freeman a six-year deal. Anthopoulos (and Braves ownership), seemingly, did not want to be on the hook for massive salaries to a late-30s first baseman. It didn’t matter that Freeman was the face of the franchise. It didn’t matter that his return appeared to be a fait accompli entering the winter. It didn’t matter that a bunch of children received Freeman replica jerseys for Christmas to celebrate the World Series win.

What mattered to Anthopoulos was what mattered to him last deadline: putting his club in the best possible position to succeed. You can argue that’s a mistake, or, at least, that the business of baseball should leave open room for emotions. It’s a reasonable position; it’s certainly the most romantic option. But if you view it through Anthopoulos’ eyes, doing what he did, letting Freeman walk and trade for Olson, makes a certain kind of sense. That Anthopoulos can now repurpose the money earmarked for Freeman toward — well, someone — means the Braves might have superior odds of repeating as champions than if they had just ran it back.

For any of this to be acceptable to the Braves fan base, if it is acceptable at all, there had to be two conditions met. One, the Braves had to win last year’s World Series to generate that aforementioned goodwill. And two, the first baseman replacing Freeman had to be really good. Olson, as it turns out, is really good. He might even outproduce Freeman heading forward.

Last season, Olson batted .271/.371/.540 (153 OPS+) with 39 home runs and 88 walks. (Freeman, for reference, hit .300/.393/.503 (133 OPS+) with 31 home runs and 85 walks.) What’s more is that Olson reduced his strikeout rate from 31.4 percent to 16.8 percent, the largest season-to- season changes among everyday players. That alteration was accompanied by a correspondingly robust improvement in his contact rate: instead of connecting on 70 percent of his in-zone swings, as he had the year prior, he completed the transaction on close to 82 percent of them. He credited his gains in part to altering his swing, specifically his bat angle, and in part to the use of a “little red” pitching machine the A’s used for batting practice.

Whatever the exact explanation is behind Olson’s improvements, if they prove sustainable then he’s going to remain one of the top hitters in the game. That’s what happens when you take someone with his kind of elite strength and eye for the zone and you provide them with the ability to make contact at a league-average rate. Add in how Olson is a multiple-time Gold Glove Award winner, and the Braves now have the kind of high-grade two-way contributor at the cold corner that they haven’t seen since … oh, right.

Speaking of Freeman one last time, Anthopoulos’ unwillingness to give him a sixth year raises questions about Atlanta’s long-term plans with Olson. The Braves have Olson under team control through the 2023 season, but will they pay in both dollars and years to keep him beyond then? Or will they have to seek out another stud first baseman to serve as a successor?

Perhaps the difference is as simple as looking in the age column. Whereas Olson will be 30 years old when he qualifies for free agency; Freeman is presently 32. The difference between 36 and 38 seems trivial, except when there’s millions of dollars riding on the line. But that’s a topic for another offseason. For now, the Braves have a title to defend.

Athletics grade: B

Getting fair value for a player of Olson’s caliber is tough. Getting fair value for a player of Olson’s caliber when the entire league knows you’re going to trade him is even tougher. Unfortunately for the A’s, they found themselves in the second situation. Of course they did. Familiarity is a cold comfort given the circumstances, but the A’s front office has done this song and dance before, dating back now more than two decades. Heck, they’re primed to do it again later this week, when they move third baseman Matt Chapman to some lucky suitor.

The A’s way is to build a contender for a three-to-five run, then to tear down said contender because of financial constraints. The A’s, who had previously been cut off from revenue-sharing dollars, will now receive an increasing share over the next few seasons as part of the new collective bargaining agreement. It’s not a guarantee that will remain the case beyond 2024, however, as the CBA dictates the A’s must have a stadium deal in place.

It’s anyone’s guess as to when and how the whole stadium mess will work out. Eventually, the A’s will find a resolution, be it in Oakland or another locale, on their dime or the locals’. Until then, the front office has to continue to operate on this loop. Every few years, they have to trade today’s good players for a prospect package they hope can become tomorrow’s good players.

On paper, anyway, their return on Olson would seem to feature four potential big-league contributors. Can any of them develop into core pieces, the way Olson was for Oakland? The future is infinite, but from this vantage point, the odds are in favor of “no.”

We’ll begin with Pache, the only member of the foursome who has big-league experience. Pache boasts a tremendous defensive profile in center field thanks to his near-elite speed, his instincts, and his well-above-average arm. It’s not a stretch to write that he could win multiple Gold Glove Awards during his career. The snag with Pache, and bear in mind that he’s 23 years old, is that he might never hit enough to beat higher than eighth or ninth in the order.

Pache has the tools to be a better offensive player. He has the aforementioned speed to terrorize opposing defenses on the basepaths, and his raw power grades as above-average. Alas, he’s been caught stealing more times than he’s successfully swiped a bag since 2019, and his single-season career-high in home runs is 12. Pache swings and misses a lot for someone with modest in-game power aspirations, and he’s likely to run an ugly strike-out-to-walk ratio.

Pache’s defense grants him a wide berth and will make him a big-league player in some capacity or another for years to come. If he can leverage his athleticism and take advantage of his youth, he could develop into a quality two-way contributor. Otherwise, he’s going to make a lot of outs — on all sides of the ball.

Langeliers, 24 years old, was the ninth pick of the 2019 draft based on his high floor. He’s a skilled defender who has an above-average arm as well as a feel for framing and blocking pitches in the dirt. As with Pache, it’s to be seen how much Langeliers will hit at the big-league level. He struck out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances last season between Double- and Triple-A, and he’s yet to record a batting average even as high as .260.

Langeliers does have legitimate power and he walks a decent amount, which buys him some leeway at the plate. He’s almost guaranteed to become at least a backup in the majors, and he has a fair chance to become more than that. The A’s are likely to start him in Triple-A, but he could be their catcher of the future, and that future may arrive alongside a Sean Murphy trade.

Cusick, 22, is a large right-hander who the Braves selected with the 24th pick last summer. He made six appearances in A-ball, posting a 2.76 ERA and an 8.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His fastball sits in the 95-plus range, and he has a wipeout slider that can touch 90 mph. Provided he continues to throw strikes, and that he makes some progress with his changeup, he could develop into at least a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Perhaps, even, as soon as summer 2023.

Estes, 20, was the 487th pick in the 2019 draft. He’s proven to be a find by Atlanta’s scouting department. He spent last season at Low-A, accumulating a 2.91 ERA and a 4.38 strikeout-to-walk ratio across 99 innings. Estes has a mid-90s fastball and a pair of secondary offerings that he delivers with unusual mechanics. His arm action is abrupt and he releases the ball from a low-three-quarters slot. Odd aesthetics aside, Estes pounded the zone as a professional. That command, plus his three-pitch mix, should give him a chance to start.

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